Close Readings #1: The Turtle Club Scene in Master of Disguise

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On September 11th, 2001, something happened that changed American life forever. It was a momentous day whose impact was so profound, widespread and long-lasting that American history can usefully be divided into two categories: pre and post. 

Everyone knows where they were when this historic event occurred. It is burned indelibly into the cultural memory, in our collective consciousness as Americans as a date that will live in infamy, to paraphrase FDR’s words about another infamous attack, this time on Pearl Harbor. 

I’m speaking, of course, about how Dana Carvey, a comedy terrorist of sorts in his complete disregard for the rules of propriety and single-minded hunger to make people laugh, and his gifted collaborators launched a devastatingly successful, full frontal attack on our collective funny bone by filming, on September 11th, 2001, the legendary Turtle Club sequence in the great Dana Carvey’s 2002 classic Master of Disguise.  

The world was never the same. To this day, simply stating the words, “Turtle! Turtle! Turtle!” In a gratingly unnatural manner is enough to provoke Pavlovian shivers of delight from me and my fellow Pistachio Nuts, as I just decided Master of Disguise super-fans are known.

To be a true Pistachio Nut, and not a pretender hopping on the bandwagon because it’s cool is to forever be asking yourself, and then answering truthfully, “Am I not turtley enough for the Turtle Club?” 

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That is the question Pistachio uses to angrily and righteously confront a Turtle Club doorman played by Brandon Molale, a towering former football player you might know from such roles as Strip Club Bouncer in City of Lies, Beefy Patient in Grey’s Anatomy and Noseless Troglodyte in Bone Tomahawk when he confronts Pistachio and sidekick Jennifer Parker (Jennifer Esposito) and inquires, “Can I help you? Are you a member of the Turtle Club?”

Before they enter the Turtle Club, Esposito, who does a very convincing job of seeming embarrassed down to her bones to be seen and associated with a man who looks and acts like Carvey’s iconic character Pistacho Disguiesy does, tells her overly enthusiastic compatriot, “I don ’t mean to keep harping, but the name the Turtle Club, you know, is just a name. I think you’re taking it a little too literally.” 

The great thing about this line is that it artlessly spells out the premise of what’s to come. Pistachio is taking the name of the Turtle Club way too seriously in that he thinks that it means that in order to belong, to fit in, to literally be a member of the club you need to look like a turtle, act like a turtle, and possibly be a turtle as well in in addition to communicating how a turtle presumably would if it acquired the gift of speech yet retained the same level of sub-human intelligence. 

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It would be like if I tried to crash a Cub Scouts meeting as an adult wearing a homemade bear costume made out of a bear rug I picked up at a thrift store and augmented with razor-sharp home-made “bear” claws and teeth and then howled like I imagined a gull-grown grizzly bear might growl and expected to fit in at Cub Scout meetings by dressing and acting that way. 

I’m pretty sure I’d get shot dead pretty quickly if I were to attempt a stunt like that, deservedly so. I similarly suspect that if you were to show up at the Friar’s Club in Los Angeles without a membership or invitation but were dressed in Monk’s robes and chanting softly you would be given the old heave-ho.

Pistachio mumble-stutters, “turtle, turtle” over the course of the scene in a viscerally unnerving alien whimper as if doing so increases his turtle essence in an appealing and not disturbing and deeply counter-productive manner. 

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It’d be like if I were an alien pretending to be a human being—which Pistachio definitely seems to be over the course of the film, and to boost my authenticity I constantly mumbled, “Human! Human! Human person here!” In the same sing-song cadence as the Yip-Yip aliens from Sesame Street  and expected passerby to be all, “Hey, cool! Another human being! Always great to run into another one of those! Nothing better or more natural than seeing another human, non-alien just hanging out, mumbling about what species it belongs to!” 

“He’s dreamt of this place since he was a child. Do you think we could go in for a moment? We’ll be out in five minutes. Please?” Jennifer implores flirtatiously, using her beauty and the full force of her womanly charms to convince a man who should know better to let what appears to be a mentally ill mutated turtle-man who keeps mumbling “turtle” into the club when his ONE JOB involves keeping the Pistacho Disguiseys of the world out. 

Even before he enters the club, he is the center of attention. Everyone understandably seems to be wondering what the fuck is going on with the mutated turtle-man with his hideously deformed back squeezed uncomfortably into a green suit making unsettling eye contact with strangers and blurting with inexplicable but deeply unsettling hostility, “Turtle! Not turtle. TURTLE! Not turtle” as if going through the crowd to determine, on a patron-by-patron basis, whether or not they’re human beings like everyone since the beginning of time, or human beings who are also, on some inexplicable but intense level also weird turtle-human hybrids like the fly in The Fly but you know, disturbing. 

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Pistachio keeps blurting out the word “turtle” throughout the scene for no discernible reason. It’s as if the word is a safety blanket, the only thing that can possibly get his mind off the unspeakable horrors of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that must have hit the Saturday Night Live breakout star very close to home. So Carvey, though the character of Pistachio, keeps returning to them over and over again, as if he cannot help himself, as if the only thing that makes sense in a world gone mad involves compulsively mumbling the word “turtle” as people look in with understandable horror and confusion. 

There’s clunky narrative work going on in the scene. It’s established that Devlin Bowman, the flatulent bad guy Brent Spiner breathes life into through his artistry is a member of the Turtle Club. 

Jennifer purringly asks for the villain’s address or phone number, his contact information as it were, and if there’s one quality most villains share is that they don’t want to be too accessible, particularly to their nemeses. 

At that point the weird, overpowering but Implicit aggression of Pistachio’s demented turtle routine becomes explicit. Because if there’s one thing turtles are famous for, it’s fucking people up. Seriously, you do NOT want to mess with a turtle. There is, after all, the story of the tortoise and the hare, which ends with the hare getting beaten to death by a very angry turtle. 

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“What if HARM found its way to you? Terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE harm!?!” Pistacho threatens in a weirdly milquetoast fashion, fidgeting in a manner that’s supposed to be intimidating. “Would that change your mind? Perhaps it’s time to go into my shell.”

“Shell time coming!” Pistachio promises as his bald, bespectacled head, which looks tiny in comparison to his enormous human-sized turtle shell begins to retract back into his body through the most legendary outsized suit since David Byrne in Stop Making Sense, a film whose title also describes the thinking behind this particular set-piece. 

Pistachio’s shaved head looks like the head of a penis. His enormous turtle shell-suit, meanwhile, looks like a diseased scrotum, which, combined, gives him a disturbingly phallic look and vibe.

Pistachio makes weird, grunting, growling, sub-verbal angry turtle noises as Jennifer tries to restrain him from going off, from the devastation of “Shell time.” 

Pistacho walks away with Jennifer, at which point a cocky businessman, a real Chad type, ask Jennifer, “Hey baby, can I buy you a drink, and maybe some POND water for your friend.” 

At first Pistachio pretends to be amused, but the businessman’s cruel barb brings out the maniac in Pistachio. There are two sides to Pistachio: The maniac and the enforcer. We’ve seen the enforcer throughout the film, an angry, turtle-like man of violence bristling over with incoherent aggression towards everyone he meets. 

The snob’s insult sets off something ugly and personal and cruel in Pistachio. He retracts his head back into his giant turtle torso-shell-body. The men foolishly come over to investigate, at which point Pistachio’s turtle head pops out. He then bites off a man’s nose, then spits it back out so smoothly and quickly that it re-attaches to his face instantly. 

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Then, because we have entered a world of pure madness where logic has no power and chaos reigns, Pistachio spins around on the ground on the giant turtle-shell like apparatus inside his outsized green suit.

And then, friends, it’s over. The whole sequence lasts a mere 147 seconds but that’s all Carvey and his collaborators needed to make a scene so singularly insane, so deeply nonsensical, so wrong in every way that it deserves to be singled out and examined closely the same way we might do a deep, academic dive into a scene from Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil. 

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On 9/11, Dana Carvey said what we were all feeling when he said, “Turtle.” Then he just kept saying it because he was like most of us on that most momentous and tragic of days: overwhelmed. Confused. Scared. Unsure of what had just happened and what the undoubtedly far-reaching consequences might be. Desperately in need of consolation and comfort in a world seemingly careening into madness. Wearing a bizarre turtle-man costume and mumbling the word “turtle” compulsively and senselessly.

So while history was made in a very dark way on September 11th, 2001 it was made in a life-affirmingly stupid way as well. The astonishingly, eminently re-watchable idiocy of the Turtle Club scene in Master of Disguise stands as an essential rebuke to the awful solemnity and seriousness of the cultural moment that birthed it, to the idea that we would never laugh again, that irony was dead and we would have to be earnest forevermore or we would be dishonoring the memories of the dead. 

By filming that scene as planned, Carvey was telling Osama Bin Laden and his whole disreputable lot that not only would we laugh again despite 9/11, but we’d laugh at stupider, more juvenile, more insultingly idiotic nonsense than ever before, and we would never feel guilty for laughing. Not even a little bit. 

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And you know what? We’ve kept that promised. We’ve stayed dumb and superficial and that, ultimately, is how we’ve survived, individually and as a culture. 

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